Sunday, February 14, 2010

Fields of Poppies

 My only association with poppy fields is a poem (by John McCrae) most Canadians know well. “In Flanders Field, the poppies grow...” The poem is quite sad, reminding us of young soldiers whose lives have been cut short by war.

In Israel, a bright red flower called the poppy anemone (in Hebrew, calanit-calaniyot) is a sure sign of spring. Anemone is a name which comes from the Arabic, and is translated as “wounds.” These beautiful red flowers have long been associated with dying hope and lost love, but the first appearance of these red flowers among yellow daisies and the occasional tiny, wild purple iris in Israel is anything but sad. It has the status of a near-holiday, an occasion for picnics, family trips, car-side barbeques and a party atmosphere. Crowds of cars snake their way across highways and roads, often driving for 2 or 3 hours, until they get to a spot where a carpet of flowers await them. Kids frolic, parents take pictures, lovers walk hand-in-hand among the lush multi-coloured blankets of green, red, yellow and purple, and it’s a real Israeli event. It’s like a rock concert, or a huge convention, or a national gathering. People who haven’t seen each other in a few weeks, or a few months, or even in years see each other, jump out of their cars, and cry out, “Itzik!! Wow! You came to see the calaniyot? How the heck are you??”

Last week we went out to see the calaniyot, and I was again struck by the passion of Israelis for the land. Going out to see the calaniyot is a February tradition. These same Israelis who shout into cell-phones, who drive aggressively, who push their way past you onto a bus, who never stand in orderly cues, and who will argue with you over almost anything, suddenly become absolute marshmallows melting at the sight of a red flower in the grass. They get choked up to see more than 2 flowers in a row. They stop the car, laugh out loud like kids, wave their arms saying, “Come see quick, there’s some calaniyot over there!” How tough and how soft they are at the same time. How contradictory and how integrated at the same time.

Many Israelis go out to see the calaniyot on Shabbat afternoon. They bring their in-laws and cousins, set out sandwiches and lemonade, listen to music, and relax among the flowers. Its a kind of secular Shabbat that makes the field seem like a special and unique synagogue. The rest take their kids out of school on a weekday (“Hey, we’re going to see the calaniyot!”) or go off on Friday mornings when the kids don’t have classes. I haven’t met an Israeli yet who doesn’t at one point in February go out to see the calaniyot, and who isn’t thrilled, excited, bouyed to find out that the calaniyot are out.

During the British Mandate, the soldiers were nicknamed calaniyot by Hebrew speakers because of their red berets. I thought of them, of all things, and of Flanders Field, as I looked out over the poppy anemones. So much death and sadness these Israeli fields have seen. So many soldiers and so much war. Many times it is possible to feel the dying hope and lost love in the air of Jerusalem.

And much joy in the sight of a single flower. So much satisfaction in a short visit to the country. So much normal, so much sweet, so much touching in a few hours with the calaniyot.